Google has made its big move into social networking. Only we've been here before, several times over. Google Buzz, Google Wave, Orkut, Google Profile, Jaiku, Google Friend Connect and Dodgeball – all have been Google products that have had variable degrees of success.
So why is Google bothering? Because it needs social more than ever to better target us with ads and search results. Indeed Google is losing any grip it had on the real-time internet. Facebook and Twitter have become so strong, while in the field of IM, voice and video it's Microsoft that has built on the success of MSN and Windows Live with its acquisition of Skype.
You can check out TechRadar's first look video of Google+ right here:
So how does Google expect to compete with all of them? Google+ is the answer. But how to get a Google+ invite? Well, unfortunately you'll probably have to wait. At the time of writing, the service is restricted and you'll need somebody to invite you to get onto the service at plus.google.com.
Before we go on, it's worth saying that it's early days for Google+, so expect Google to continuously improve it as the months go on. Don't think of this as anything like finished. Here's the homepage.
When you enter the service, you'll see three panels like this. But don't be fooled by these - the magic buttons are actually along the top. The key features are Stream, Photos, Profile and Circles - more on all of those in a moment.
The core part of the service (thus far) revolves around contributing to a Facebook-style newsfeed (called the Stream) and adding friends from your Google Contacts into different groups, known as Circles which can be called anything you want.
You can then drag people into the Circles to effectively sort them into contact groups - more on why we're doing this in a minute.
While the Circles concept is brilliant – without it Google+ would look rather weak – there are a few problems with creating Circles and making contacts. You can search contacts, but people that aren't yet on Google+ are just web searches rather than searches of Google+.
After an initial period of picking up obvious contacts such as work colleagues, subsequent Contact Suggestions are poor. Indeed, to find people we knew, we were relegated to looking at the friends of friends we did have on Google+ to add more people. There's definitely a lot more work to do here.
Here's our Colleagues circle - you can search within the circle or remove people at any time.
Google also represents Circles graphically, so you can drag your contacts onto them.
So what's the point of all this? It means you can share updates with individual Circles and combinations of Circles – so if you posted a holiday picture, you can share it with your friends and not your colleagues, for example. Or, if you wanted to send a link about a current work task with the relevant people, you can simply share it with your Colleagues rather than your wider friends.
This is the key play; being able to keep personal and work separate in a way that Facebook currently can't – expect Facebook to work on offering similar options soon.
You can also filter your Stream to see updates from individual circles only as well as move people between Circles at will. And you can have people in more than one Circle – say, Colleagues and Friends.
Sharing is easy and enables you to incorporate images, links, video, location and more. But while Circles is innovative, the process of sharing isn't.
In its blog post to introduce Google+, Google's Vic Gundotra said the following: "Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it."
But Google+ doesn't do this in any way. In what way is the sharing in Google+ a better system than that on Twitter? Or Facebook? Google's claimed raison d'être for Google+ doesn't make sense.
Google+ just gives us another social networking service rather than becoming a TweetDeck or Seesmic-style facilitator sitting between existing services. There's no option here to share anything with Twitter or Facebook at the same time, for example, though you can still pull that stuff in using Buzz.
The real Achilles heel is the dependence on Google Contacts – because we don't have an Android phone but do have a Gmail account, years of broken and poorly maintained contacts were pulled into the service. If Google is serious about using Google Contacts everywhere, it needs to give us the tools to improve them rather than just removing duplicates.
By the way, new updates that are shared with you by people not inside your circles are displayed on an Incoming page.